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As COVID-19 started to spread throughout the United States, organizations like Human Rights Watch warned that custodial settings, such as federal and state prisons and immigration detention centers, would be particularly vulnerable to outbreaks. The number of people criminally incarcerated or civilly detained in the US, who are disproportionately racial and ethnic minorities, has grown exponentially in recent decades. On average, roughly 2.3 million people are confined annually nationwide, with 1.5 million people incarcerated in state and local prisons and 42,000 in detention facilities. These individuals are more likely than not from communities already enduring perpetual social and health inequalities. Custodial settings compound the consequences of these inequalities where routine overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, lack of basic hygiene products, and limited and inadequate medical care function to exacerbate vulnerabilities for a population that suffers from disproportionately high rates of chronic disease and pre-existing medical conditions. Together, institutional characteristics and individual vulnerabilities pose a formidable public health challenge whereby the conditions of confinement present a perfect breeding ground for the contraction and spread of communicable illnesses exacerbated by the COVID-19 global pandemic.
While federal and state governments have implemented strategies to fight the spread of COVID-19, such as stressing the importance of social distancing (e.g., staying at least six feet from other persons, avoidance of group gatherings or crowded places), the actual implementation of these recommendations is highly problematic for those in US custodial settings given constraints on physical space and resources. This is particularly true in states where prisons and immigration detention centers have dangerous levels of overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and a lack of adequate medical care. Facilities are also far from state-of-the-art and instead have outdated infrastructures, poor ventilation, and filtration systems that promote the flow of airborne diseases. Daily life of incarcerated and detained individuals involves a communal lifestyle with shared living and bathroom facilities and food service. Moreover, social processes within and between custodial settings make the spread of COVID-19 more likely. For instance, prison-to-prison transfers heighten the risk of spreading the virus.
Throughout U.S. history, rising waves of immigration have given way to rising waves of angst over immigrant crime. Today, nearly half of all Americans believe immigration makes crime worse for the U.S. With current estimates predicting immigrants will drive U.S. population growth, accounting for 88 percent of the population increase between 2015 and 2065, growing trepidation and alarm regarding immigrants is not only probable, but also problematic. Whereas immigration has been at the top of political agendas for numerous administrations, the relationship between immigration and crime is at the forefront of current political and public discourse. Today's rhetoric reinforces the notion that (more) immigration increases the rate of crime and this social discourse is exacerbated by media depictions of the criminal-immigrant. The social construction of the criminalimmigrant persists despite a hearty scientific basis demonstrating immigrants have relatively low levels of criminal involvement even with exposure to traditional criminogenic risk factors (e.g., instability, residence in disadvantaged areas) and at a time when the apprehension of criminal undocumented immigrants at the border continue to decline to historically low levels.
Looking back, these waves of angst and corresponding discourse and rhetoric, brought about a socio-legal response to the alleged criminal-immigrant, “crimmigration,” a term coined by legal scholar Julie Stumpf in her 2006 publication “The Crimmigration Crisis: Immigrants, Crime, and Sovereign Power.” Starting in the 1980s, and persisting today, crimmigration has been demarcated by a disappearing delineation between (civil) immigration law and criminal law. Through a series of sometimes-incremental changes to laws and their enforcement, these two traditionally separate areas of law – immigration and criminal – have become intertwined. This fusion of law not only influences policies and practices throughout the criminal justice system, but also the framing of an important social and human rights issue. As a result, we have a social milieu characterized by the presumption of illegality and the criminalization of a class of people.
While such narratives have the power to skew public perceptions of immigrant criminality, the effect is more pervasive, shaping local, state, and federal decisions regarding formal responses to immigration and crime and the allocation of scarce public safety resources.
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